WA - Pipeline explosion blamed on negligence

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WASHINGTON -- The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday ruled that damage from an excavation and shoddy management by Olympic Pipe Line Co. triggered the 1999 accident in Bellingham that killed three people and awakened the nation to the dangers of pipelines.

NTSB investigators told the board that the pipeline accident was caused by an accumulation of small events rather than a single catastrophic failure. Removing any of the events, investigators suggested, could have prevented the accident. The conclusions were drawn from a three-year examination of the pipeline's hardware and computer control system as well as management and training.

The pipeline ruptured on June 10, 1999, unleashing 237,000 gallons of gasoline into Whatcom Creek as it snaked through a local park. The gas ignited, killing two 10-year-old boys, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, and 18-year-old Liam Wood, who was fishing in the creek.

The first problem, the report said, came in 1994 when IMCO General Construction Co. damaged the pipeline while excavating at a water treatment plant in Bellingham. IMCO officials did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment.

"Had the accident pipeline not been weakened by external damage, it likely would have been able to withstand the pressure that occurred on the day of the rupture, and the accident would not have happened," the report said.

But Olympic's lax management and its failure to notice other warnings compounded the danger.

Among other failings, the report said, Olympic did not adequately inspect the excavation site. That prevented the company from identifying and repairing damage. Moreover, the report found that while Olympic was not aware of the excavation at the time the work was being done, company officials were later told about it in sufficient detail to warrant a rigorous inspection of that section of pipe.

That was never done, however, and the company "thus did not identify the true extent of the damage."

The danger was further compounded, the report said, by a balky computer system that made it difficult to respond to warnings of excessive pressure building up within the 16-inch steel pipeline.

If the computer system had been operating properly, "the controller operating the pipeline probably would have been able to initiate actions that would have prevented the pressure increase that ruptured the pipeline," the report said.

Making matters worse, investigators said, was an inefficient computer system that denied operators real-time information about conditions along the line. Without that information or the ability to process the information that was available, the controller "restarted the pipeline" after it had ruptured.

The accident exposed glaring weaknesses in the way the government regulates pipelines and prompted Congress to pass legislation to toughen controls. House and Senate conferees are working out differences in a broader bill that contains the pipeline provisions.

The legislation requires better training for pipeline operators and more sophisticated tests to ensure that valves function properly. The NTSB endorsed both reforms.

"The NTSB report confirms what a lot of us thought had happened," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose district includes Bellingham and who is the author of a pipeline safety bill. "There's great relief at the board's findings." Larsen said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who wrote the pipeline safety bill the Senate passed last year, said the NTSB report reinforced longstanding beliefs.

"The NTSB report confirms the senselessness of this tragedy, that it was entirely preventable," she said.

Bobby Talley, vice president of Olympic Pipe Line Co., said Olympic is "satisfied with the thoroughness of (NTSB's) factual report."

"Our commitment to safety and the environment is a top priority and we will examine the recommendations set forth by the NTSB as part of our ongoing effort to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again," he said.

The fallout from the accident -- both in legal and in policy terms -- continues.

In September 2001, a federal grand jury indicted Olympic and Equilon Pipeline Co., which operated the pipeline along with Olympic. Three Olympic employees also were indicted on charges of violating the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and the Clean Water Act. The indictment alleges failure to make critical repairs of the pipeline as required by the Pipeline Safety Act.

In addition to the two companies, the defendants are Frank Hopf Jr., former chief manager of Olympic; Ronald Dean Brentson, the Olympic executive responsible for monitoring the pipeline at the time of the rupture; and Kevin Scott Dyvig, a pipeline controller.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein is weighing whether to move the trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 13, from Seattle to another West Coast venue. Some of the defendants have argued that any local jury pool would be tainted by excessive media coverage of the rupture.

Though the criminal charges against the pipeline companies may be the most serious, they've also been hit with several other legal slaps over the past year.

In June, the Washington state Department of Ecology fined Olympic and Equilon $7.86 million each. The month before, the Justice Department filed a civil suit, asking for more than $37 million in fines. And the companies settled a civil suit from the families of the two 10-year-old boys who died in the explosion in April. They agreed to pay $75 million.

The accident also prompted the federal Office of Pipeline Safety to require pipeline operators to allow federal inspectors to review company plans to prevent safety problems, and prompted Congress to push for tougher safety standards.


The NTSB report cited:

  • Excavation damage in 1994 and inadequate inspection

  • Inaccurate evaluation of pipeline inspections

  • A balky computer-control system; poorly trained employees

    Seattle P-I

    The balky computer system was actually an embedded SCADA chip
    that failed. The failure of these chips caused a doubling of
    monetary loss due to pipeline failures in the year 2000.

    -- Anonymous, October 09, 2002

  • Answers


    Monday, August 9, 1999

    . . .

    The chemical industry is potentially vulnerable to the Y2K problem on two fronts. First, there is there a great deal of automation in the production, storage, and movement of chemical products. These automated systems may fail in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways when the year 2000 arrives. Secondly, chemical production and storage facilities are often very dependent on external utilities, especially electricity, water, and telecommunications, for safe operations. There are concerns that failures may occur in one or more of these services in localized areas in the US and in parts of the world where US firms have chemical plants.

    A July safety bulletin from the U.S. Department of Transportation provides an example of the vulnerability of the chemical sector to technological problems. Stemming from an investigation into a recent pipeline safety incident involving the transport of hazardous materials, the bulletin warned pipeline operators of potential problems with their computer systems, known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, which electronically monitor and control pipeline operations. The bulletin said that in one particular situation, the systems had become temporarily "overburdened" as a result of database errors, a lack of reserve computational power in the SCADA processor, and the unusually dynamic changes that occurred during the incident. Operators nationwide were warned to review their own SCADA systems to safeguard against similar problems.

    Special Committee on Y2K

    -- Anonymous, March 07, 2004

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